There is a Jewish practice that in the lead up to Passover, we re-familiarise ourselves with the laws of the upcoming festival. In the words of the sages: As the festival approaches, “we enquire into and expound the laws of Passover” (B. Pesahim 6a). This is one of the goals of Derashat Shabbat HaGadol – the public sermon that is traditionally delivered on the Shabbat preceding Passover. The Talmud discusses when we should start this process, offering two opinions: According to the first opinion, we begin the annual review thirty days prior to the festival; according to the second opinion, we start two weeks before Passover.
The hasidic master, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanow (1745-1815), explained that the term used by the sages for enquiring into the laws of Passover, should be read as a beseeching, prayerful request rather than merely asking a question in order to receive information. Each person should ask, indeed beg, the Almighty before Passover for Divine assistance in keeping all the commandments of the holy festival. As we all know, the challenges of preparing for Passover – in particular, ridding our homes of all traces of forbidden hametz – can be particularly taxing. It is not just a “spring cleaning”; it is a religious obligation and failure carries dire consequences. As we embark upon this task, we ask God for assistance.
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanow went a step further, explaining that the request is not just referring to physical hametz. Indeed, on a spiritual plane ridding our homes of forbidden hametz symbolises the desire to rid our hearts of symbolic hametz. As Passover approaches we hope to cleanse our souls of leavening agents that cause exaggerated self-importance. Even a miniscule amount of haughtiness is to be discarded, for on Passover the smallest amount of hametz is forbidden. Faced with this spiritual task, we beseech the Almighty for assistance.
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanow, therefore, highlighted two levels of pre-Passover prayers: we ask for assistance in getting rid of physical hametz and we ask for assistance in getting rid of spiritual hametz.
If I may be permitted, I would like to highlight a third aspect that comes from the reading suggested by Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanow. As the festival quickly approaches, we ask for help in fulfilling a central – but at times formidable – aspect of Passover. We hope for Divine assistance in keeping the Passover commandments, but not just the hametz prohibitions that can sadly foment an overly obsessive attitude to the presence of dust particles. We beseech the Almighty for assistance in fulfilling the positive of commandment of sharing the Exodus experience with our children and initiating them in Jewish collective memory.
The Passover responsibility to the next generation may be tougher than any menial cleaning. To be sure, the cleaning is often a thankless and unenjoyable chore, but with a little self-discipline we complete the task. In contrast, raising the next generation of bearers of Jewish tradition, is a challenging responsibility. It goes beyond teaching a child to stand on chair and recite ma nishtana. The enterprise involves inculcating Jewish values, bequeathing pride in our heritage, and developing love for our tradition.
This mission requires thought, patience, and investment. It is an undertaking that is furthered by a carefully thought out strategy: How do we retain the interest of the youth, when they no longer are excited to recite ma nishtana? How do we teach without stifling teenagers? How do we provide space, while offering guidance?
Taking the reading of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanow in this direction suggests that as Passover nears we should ask for Divine assistance on three fronts. First, we hope that the Almighty will help us get rid of any traces of hametz. Second, we pray that we can purge our hearts of any symbolic hametz. Third, we beseech God for assistance in what may be the most challenging but important task: Passing on Jewish tradition to the next generation.